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Gloria Henry, the perpetually upbeat mother of ‘Dennis the Menace,’ dies at 98

Gloria Henry with Jay North and Herbert Anderson.
Gloria Henry with Jay North, right, as Dennis Mitchell, and Herbert Anderson, as Henry Mitchell.
(Erin Ellwood )

Gloria Henry, the effervescent mother on the television series “Dennis the Menace” who patiently rolled with her son’s well-meaning but mischievous antics, has died at her home in Los Angeles.

Henry, who was 98 when she died April 3, had a long film and television career and later in life was instrumental in bringing attention and much-needed money to help fund and grow educational programs at the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum at a time when the art scene in downtown Los Angeles was just beginning to bloom.

Though her perpetually sunny character as Dennis Mitchell’s mother made her a lovable figure in living rooms across America, it also typecast Henry as the mom-next-door and cut off more ambitious roles she hoped would come her way.

“It kind of ended things for me,” she told The Times in 1992.

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Gloria Eileen McEniry was born April 2, 1923, and raised in New Orleans. She moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, signed a contract with Columbia Studios in 1946, adopted the stage name Gloria Henry and did her utmost to get noticed.

“I didn’t have any money so I would buy cheap blouses at Woolworth’s and then sew expensive buttons onto them,” her daughter, Erin Ellwood, recalled her mother saying. “Those little details always caught the eye of the executives.”

Henry got her first break when she was cast in the 1947 horse-racing film “Sport of Kings” and then quickly became a frequently used commodity in a series of movies, including a pair of Gene Autry westerns — “The Strawberry Roan” and “Riders in the Sky.” She played opposite Lucille Ball and William Holden in “Miss Grant Takes Richmond” and Marlene Dietrich in “Rancho Notorious.”

When CBS rolled out “Dennis the Menace” in 1959, Henry won the role of Alice Mitchell, the radiant housewife who gently nudged along her trouble-prone son and settled down her hapless, jittery husband, Henry. A cranky next-door neighbor, known simply as Mr. Wilson, often found himself dragged into Dennis’ antics.

The show lasted four years, but the shadow it cast lasted far longer.

The star of the sitcom, Jay North, had been berated and pushed endlessly by his family, to the point that he all but crumbled when he blew a line or came up short of his family’s lofty expectations. When the show came to an end in 1963, his career came screeching to a halt as he tried — and mostly failed — to land new roles. Despondent and lost, he left L.A. and joined the Navy.

“He was a beautiful little boy, a good little boy, but a bit cushioned from reality,” Henry told the Washington Post in 1978. “It’s a shame he was robbed of his childhood.”

Gloria Henry, Dorothy Chandler and other theater volunteers.
Gloria Henry, left, Dorothy Chandler and other theater volunteers in an undated photo.
(Family photo)

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Henry stepped away from Hollywood as well. She became a PTA mom and an arts patron who took — or sometimes dragged — her three children to museums, theaters and the opera. When Dorothy Chandler, whose husband, Norman, then was publisher of The Times, asked for her help, she feverishly raised funds so schoolchildren could attend performances at the Ahmanson and Mark Taper Forum. She remained an active member of the Center Theatre Group Volunteers for 50 years.

She was also a longtime docent at the Los Angeles Zoo and an animal lover who kept a pet ocelot named Jesus in the family home until she discovered it was illegal to keep such a pet in Los Angeles.

When she did return to acting, hoping by now she would no longer be remembered simply as Dennis Mitchell’s mother, the matronly roles persisted. When she appeared on “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” she was cast as Doogie’s grandmother.

“It’s hard to surface again when you’ve been so connected with one role, one type of person,” she told the Los Angeles Daily News.

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But if it bothered her, it never showed, Ellwood said.

Henry is survived by her three children, Jeff, Erin and Adam; and a grandchild, Amelie. Her former husband, modernist architect Craig Ellwood, died in 1992.


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